“I Tiresias”


The figure of Tiresias, the blind seer from Greek mythology, has always appealed a great variety of authors both ancient and modern. In particular T.S. Eliot gives him (according to his own notes) a key role in The Waste Land. The question for readers is this: what features of Tiresias are functional to Eliot’s masterpiece? Who is Tiresias?

ti7The myths about Tiresias are many. One of the most common refers that, one day walking on Mount Cyllene, he saw two copulating snakes and he killed the female because that scene bothered him, a male chauvinist choice, actually. The goddess Hera was not pleased, and she punished Tiresias by transforming him into a woman. As a woman, Tiresias became a priestess of Hera. She married and had children and one of them, Manto, also possessed the gift of prophecy. She lived in this state for seven years trying all the pleasures that a woman could try, till once again she found herself facing the same scene of the snakes. Depending on the myth, it seems that this time the Tiresias cleverly resolved upon either leaving the snakes alone or trampling on them. Whatever her choice was, it worked, as Tiresias was allowed to regain his masculinity.

ti2One day Zeus and Hera found themselves divided by a dispute about who could have more pleasure in sex: a man or a woman. Failing to come to a conclusion, because Zeus claimed it was the woman, while Hera asserted that it was the man, the quarrelsome couple agreed to summon Tiresias, as he was very likely the only one that could resolve that argument, because of his transgender experience. Once in front of the gods, he said that sexual pleasure is composed of ten parts and “of ten parts a man enjoys one only” and  a woman nine. The goddess Hera was furious because Tiresias had revealed such a secret and instantly struck him blind. Zeus, who could do nothing to stop or reverse her curse, as Greek gods cannot change what others have decided, gave him the power to predict the future and the lifespan of seven lives as recompense. In other versions of the myth  Tiresias was blinded by Athena after he had seen her bathing naked. His mother, Chariclo, a nymph of Athena, begged Athena to undo her curse, but the goddess could not; instead, she cleaned his ears, giving him the ability to understand birdsong and the gift of divination.

ti3There are diverging myths on his death as well. During the attack of Epigoni against Thebes, Tiresias fled the city along with the Thebans and died after drinking water from the tainted spring Tilphussa, where he was struck by an arrow of Apollo. In another version the soothsayer and his daughter Manto were taken prisoner in Thebes and sent to Delphi, where they would have been consecrated to the god Apollo. Tiresias died of fatigue during the journey. The soul of Tiresias, after entering into Hades, retained the powers of divination, as narrated by Homer in the Odyssey.

ti5Going back to the initial question, therefore,Tiresias embodies exactly what Eliot was looking for: his having been both man and woman makes him a unifying figure in The Waste Land, thus linking the ancient and modern worlds and giving unity to that “heap of broken images” which is the present world. Furthemore Tiresias, in the desolation and despair of The Waste Land,  reactivates his ancient role – that of a prophet. In this mythological context, Eliot seems to indicate that the state of the waste land will not always be perpetual as long as Tiresias directs us.




Myths, heroes and………..Totti.

fall-of-pha-thon-greek-mythology-2996236-800-584I’ve always enjoyed reading stories about myths, legends, courageous men ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their country or even only for the beauty of a woman. The main actors of these stories where the heroes, who actually embodied the highest expression of  the values of their society: loyalty, honour, love for the country, sacrifice. With their deeds, which were narrated in long epic poems, they were the symbols of the power, pride but also ethics of their people, thus contributing, through a natural process of identification, in the making of what could be called national awareness.

192964_oHeroes could not be commoners, for sure, because the greatness of the values they embodied had a divine nature that could be found either in their breed, for example Achilles, whose mother was the nymph Thetis or in their name, as for  Beowulf. Beowulf, in fact,  means “bee wolf” (which was supposed to be a metaphor for a bear): “the wolf that eats honey“, from which it was extracted ambrosia, the food of gods. He was, therefore, one of them. The values heroes embodied were universal and worked as glue of past more primitive societies, thus creating the basis of modern ones. At this point, I always ask my students a question: are there any such heroes nowadays? Men or women that could be the expression of universal values? They usually ponder for a while, then they come up with the usual defiant answer: Totti.

tottiTotti, who? I guess you would ask. Well, Totti happens to be an Italian footballer, particularly popular here in Rome as he is the captain of A.S.Roma. The answer is quite provocative, as they know well that I am a great fan of the other team here in Rome S.S.Lazio. On Sundays , but often for the whole week, the atmosphere here is always something like, Capulets vs Montague,Guelphs vs Ghibellines,Trois vs Sparta and Lazio vs Roma. Thus, you may understand how that name can be particularly odious to me. However, despite the choice of the man, is it such a wrong answer? Can an action of a  footballer or a team have the same function of glorious heroic deeds? Yes.

7FEVER-PITCH1997_1835603iNick Hornby in his autobiographical book  Fever Pitch: A Fan’s life , well describes how football works in the mind of supporters. It is glue. Football is the common ground that allows the protagonist Paul Ashworth, an English teacher, to re-create a relationship with his father after the divorce and at the same time he finds in the other supporters of Arsenal that family he needs, with whom sharing the deeds of the present, the hopes for a better future and the stories of a glorious past. Time is felt as seasonal, therefore reassuring, cyclical, never-ending. We may discuss upon the values football expresses, however, people gather around those values and find motivations, passion, frustration but also happiness. For ninety minutes they/we feel alive in a never-ending dream.

It is sad, however, that they couldn’t spot anybody else. How could I blame them? After all the society they had been brought up fabricates powerful models, who invite to a process of identification in order to make profit (football included). The beautiful “lightness” of values is thus replaced by the “heaviness” due to the craving of things. Therefore, once men are emptied of their values, they cannot but  become just like those “dried tubers” of T.S.Eliot ‘s Waste Land, who don’t seem to find any good reason to live and just like “broken images” wander pointlessly in this world, unless……………Totti comes 😦